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A £25-million research programme aimed at preventing animal diseases in the developing world has been launched by the UK-based Wellcome Trust.

The five-year initiative, which will fund scientists from all over the globe, aims to benefit the 700 million people — one quarter of the world's poor — who rely on livestock.

"Developing countries are plagued by a wide variety of infectious animal diseases, some of which also affect humans, that are not present in the West," says Brian Perry, coordinator of Epidemiology and Disease Control at the International Livestock research Institute in Kenya.

"As a result relatively few resources are invested in the development of technologies and strategies to control them. Therefore this initiative is a significant step in the search for equitable global health and prosperity."

Diseases afflicting animals in the developing world range from Rift Valley Fever, a mosquito-borne disease which infects humans as well as sheep and goats, to African Horse Sickness, which is carried by midges and kills up to 95 per cent of horses, mules and donkeys it attacks.

The programme will fund research into new methods of predicting and controlling outbreaks of such diseases, for example, by using post-genomic technology to find new treatment targets, and by producing livestock with enhanced resistance to disease.

"In many parts of the developing world owning livestock is an essential way of life," says Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust. "A cow or goat might be the only commodity some people own. If it dies through disease it could be a catastrophe for them."

"Healthy livestock can offer people a way out of poverty and open up trade barriers which is one of the reasons this initiative is so important."

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